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The Paxton Boys

 Native American Nations | A Century of Dishonor                    


But the "Paxton Boys" were now like wild beasts that had tasted blood. They threatened to attack the Quakers and all persons who sympathized with or protected Indians. They openly mocked and derided the governor and his proclamations, and set off at once for Philadelphia, announcing their intention of killing all the Moravian Indians who had been placed under the protection of the military there.

Their march through the country was like that of a band of maniacs. In a private letter written by David Rittenhouse at this time, he says, "About fifty of these scoundrels marched by my workshop. I have seen hundreds of Indians traveling the country, and can with truth affirm that the behavior of these fellows was ten times more savage and brutal than theirs. Frightening women by running the muzzles of guns through windows, hallooing and swearing; attacking men without the least provocation, dragging them by the hair to the ground, and pretending to scalp them; shooting dogs and fowls: these are some of their exploits."

It is almost past belief that at this time many people justified these acts. An Episcopalian clergyman in Lancaster wrote vindicating them, "bringing Scripture to prove that it was right to destroy the heathen;" and the "Presbyterians think they have a better justification nothing less than the Word of God," says one of the writers on the massacre.

"With the Scriptures in their hands and mouths, they can set at naught that express command, Thou shalt do no murder,' and justify their wickedness by the command given to Joshua to destroy the heathen. Horrid perversion of Scripture and religion, to father the worst of crimes on the God of Love and Peace!" It is a trite saying that history repeats itself; but it is impossible to read now these accounts of the massacres of defenseless and peaceable Indians in the middle of the eighteenth century, without the reflection that the record of the nineteenth is blackened by the same stains. What Pennsylvania pioneers did in 1763 to helpless and peaceable Indians of Conestoga, Colorado pioneers did in 1864 to help less and peaceable Cheyenne at Sand Creek, and have threatened to do again to helpless and peaceable Ute in 1880. The word "extermination" is as ready on the frontiersman's tongue to-day as it was a hundred years ago; and the threat is more portentous now, seeing that we are, by a whole century of prosperity, stronger and more numerous, and the Indians are, by a whole century of suffering and oppression, fewer and weaker. But our crime is baser and our infamy deeper in the same proportion.

Close upon this Conestoga massacre followed a "removal" of friendly Indians-the earliest on record, and one whose cruelty and cost to the suffering Indians well entitle it to a place in a narrative of massacres.

Everywhere in the provinces fanatics began to renew the old cry that the Indians were the Canaanites whom God had commanded Joshua to destroy; and that these wars were a token of God's displeasure with the Europeans for permitting the " heathen " to live. Soon it became dangerous for a Moravian Indian to be seen anywhere. In vain did he carry one of the Pennsylvania governor's passports in his pocket. He was liable to be shot at sight, with no time to pull his passport out. Even in the villages there was no safety. The devoted congregations watched and listened night and day, not knowing at what hour they might hear the fatal war whoop of hostile members of their own race, coming to slay them; or the sudden shots of white settlers, coming to avenge on them outrages committed by savages hundreds of miles away.

With every report that arrived of Indian massacres at the North, the fury of the white people all over the country rose to greater height, including even Christian Indians in its un reasoning hatred. But, in the pious language of a narrative written by one of the Moravian missionaries, "God inclined the hearts of the chief magistrates to protect them. November 6th an express arrived from Philadelphia, bringing an order that all the baptized Indians from Nain and Wechquetank should be brought to Philadelphia, and be protected in that city, having first delivered up their arms."

Two days later both these congregations set out on their sad journey, weeping as they left their homes. They joined forces at Bethlehem, on the banks of the Lecha, and "entered upon their pilgrimage in the name of the Lord, the congregation of Bethlehem standing spectators, and, as they passed, commending them to the grace and protection of God, with supplication and tears."

Four of the Moravian missionaries were with them, and some of the brethren from Bethlehem accompanied them all the way, "the sheriff, Mr. Jennings, caring for them as a father."

The aged, the sick, and the little children were carried in wagons. All the others, women and men, went on foot. The November rains had made the roads very heavy. As the weary and heart-broken people toiled slowly along through the mud, they were saluted with curses and abuse on all sides. As they passed through the streets of Germantown a mob gathered and followed them, taunting them with violent threats of burning, hanging, and other tortures. It was said that a party had been organized to make a serious attack on them, but was deterred by the darkness and the storm. Four days were con-sinned in this tedious march, and on the 11th of November they reached Philadelphia. Here, spite of the governor's positive order, the officers in command at the barracks refused to allow them to enter. From ten in the forenoon till three in the afternoon there the helpless creatures stood before the shut gate messengers going back and forth between the defiant garrison and the bewildered and impotent governor; the mob, thickening and growing more and more riotous hour by hour, pressing the Indians on every side, jeering them, reviling them, charging them with all manner of outrages, and threatening to kill them on the spot. The missionaries, bravely standing beside their flock, in vain tried to stem or turn the torrent of insult and abuse. All that they accomplished was to draw down the same insult and abuse on their own heads.

Nothing but the Indians' marvelous patience and silence saved them from being murdered by this exasperated mob. To the worst insults they made no reply, no attempt at retaliation or defense. They afterward said that they had comforted themselves "by considering what insult and mockery our Savior had suffered on their account."

At last, after five hours of this, the governor, unable to compel the garrison to open the barracks, sent an order that the Indians should be taken to Province Island, an island in the Delaware liver joined to the mainland by a dam. Six miles more, every mile in risk of their lives, the poor creatures walked. As they passed again through the city, thousands followed them, the old record says, and " with such tumultuous clamor that they might truly be considered as sheep among wolves."

Long after dark they reached the island, and were lodged in some unused buildings, large and comfortless. There they kept their vesper service, and took heart from the fact that the verse for the day was that verse of the beautiful thirty-second psalm which has comforted so many perplexed souls: "I will teach thee in the way thou shalt go."

Here they settled themselves as best they could. The missionaries had their usual meetings with them, and humane people from Philadelphia, "especially some of the people called Quakers," sent them provisions and fuel, and tried in various ways to " render the inconvenience of their situation less grievous."

Before they had been here a month some of the villages they had left were burnt, and the riotous Paxton mob, which had murdered all the peaceful Conestoga Indians, announced its intention of marching on Province Island and killing every Indian there. The Governor of Pennsylvania launched proclamation after proclamation, forbidding any one, under severest penalties, to molest the Indians under its protection, and offering a reward of two hundred pounds for the apprehension of the ringleaders of the insurgents. But public sentiment was inflamed to such a degree that the Government was practically powerless. The known ringleaders and their sympathizers paraded contemptuously in front of the governor's house, mocking him derisively, and not even two hundred pounds would tempt any man to attack them. In many parts of Lancaster County parties were organized with the avowed intention of marching on Philadelphia and slaughtering all the Indians under the protection of the Government. Late on the 29th of December rumors reached Philadelphia that a large party of these rioters were on the road; and the governor, at daybreak the next day, sent large boats to Province Island, with orders to the missionaries to put their people on board as quickly as possible, row to Leek Island, and await further orders. In confusion and terror the congregations obeyed, and fled to Leek Island. Later in the day came a second letter from the governor, telling them that the alarm had proved a false one. They might return to Province Island, where he would send them a guard; and that they would better keep the boats, to be ready in case of a similar emergency.

"They immediately returned with joy to their former habitation," says the old record, " comforted by the text for the day' The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusted in him ' (Ps. xxviii., 7)-and closed this remarkable year with prayer and thanksgiving for all the proofs of the help of God in so many heavy trials."

Four days later the missionaries received a second order for instant departure. The reports of the murderous intentions of the rioters being confirmed, and the governor seeing only too clearly his own powerlessness to contend with them, he had resolved to send the Indians northward, and put them under the protection of the English army, and especially of Sir William Johnson, agent for the Crown among the Northern Indians. No time was to be lost in carrying out this plan, for at any moment the mob might attack Province Island. Accordingly, at midnight of January 4th, the fugitives set out once more, passed through Philadelphia, undiscovered, to the meetinghouse of the Moravian Brethren, where a breakfast had been provided for them. Here they were met by the commissary, Mr. Fox, who had been detailed by the governor to take charge of their journey. Mr. Fox, heart-stricken at their suffering appearance, immediately sent out and bought blankets to be distributed among them, as some protection against the cold. Wagons were brought for the aged, sick, blind, little children, and the heavy baggage; and again the pitiful procession took up its march. Again an angry mob gathered fast on its steps, cursing and reviling in a terrible manner, only restrained by fear from laying violent hands on them. Except for the protection of a military escort they would scarcely have escaped murderous assault.

At Amboy two sloops lay ready to transport them to New York; but just as they reached this place, and were preparing to go on shore, a messenger arrived from the Governor of New York with angry orders that not an Indian should set foot in that territory. Even the ferrymen were forbidden, under heavy penalties, to ferry one across the river.

The commissioner in charge of them, in great perplexity, sent to the Governor of Pennsylvania for further orders, placing the Indians, meantime, in the Amboy barracks. Here they held their daily meetings, singing and praying with great unction, until finally many of their enemies were won to a hearty respect and sympathy for them; even soldiers being heard to say, " Would to God all the white people were as good Christians as these Indians."

The Pennsylvania governor had nothing left him to do but to order the Indians back again, and, accordingly, says the record, " The Indian congregation set out with cheerfulness on their return, in full confidence that the Lord in his good providence, for wise purposes best known to himself, had ordained their traveling thus to and fro. This belief supported them under all the difficulties they met with in their journeys made in the severest part of winter."

They made the return journey under a large military escort, one party in advance and one bringing up the rear. This escort was composed of soldiers, who, having just come from Niagara, where they had been engaged in many fights with the North-western savages, were at first disposed to treat these defenseless Indians with brutal cruelty; but they were soon disarmed by the Indians' gentle patience, and became cordial and friendly.

The return journey was a hard one. The aged and infirm people had become much weakened by their repeated hardships, and the little children suffered pitiably. In crossing some of the frozen rivers the feeble ones were obliged to crawl on their hands and feet on the ice.

On the 24th of January they reached Philadelphia, and were at once taken to the barracks, where almost immediately mobs began again to molest and threaten them. The governor, thoroughly in earnest now, and determined to sustain his own honor and that of the province, had eight heavy pieces of cannon mounted and a rampart thrown up in front of the barracks. The citizens were called to arms, and so great was the excitement that it is said even Quakers took guns and hurried to the barracks to defend the Indians; and the governor himself went at midnight to visit them, and reassure them by promises of protection.

On February 4th news was received that the rioters in large force were approaching the city. Hearing of the preparations made to receive them, they did not venture to enter. On the night of the 5th, however, they drew near again. The whole city was roused, church-bells rung, bonfires lighted, cannon fired, the inhabitants waked from their sleep and ordered to the town-house, where arms were given to all. Four more cannon were mounted at the barracks, and all that day was spent in hourly expectation of the rebels. But their brave boasts were not followed up by action. Seeing that the city was in arms against them, they halted. The governor then sent a delegation of citizens to ask them what they wanted.

They asserted, insolently, that there were among the Indians some who had committed murders, and that they must be given up. Some of the ringleaders were then taken into the barracks and asked to point out the murderers. Covered with confusion, they were obliged to admit they could not accuse one Indian there. They then charged the Quakers with having taken away six and concealed them. This also was disproved, and finally the excitement subsided.

All through the spring and summer the Indians remained prisoners in the barracks. Their situation became almost insupportable from confinement, unwholesome diet, and the mental depression inevitable in their state. To add to their misery smallpox broke out among them, and fifty-six died in the course of the summer from this loathsome disease.

" We cannot describe," said the missionaries, " the joy and fervent desire which most of them showed in the prospect of seeing their Savior face to face. We saw with amazement the power of the blood of Jesus in the hearts of poor sinners." This was, no doubt, true; but there might well have entered into the poor, dying creatures' thoughts an ecstasy at the mere prospect of freedom, after a year of such imprisonment and suffering.

At last, on December 4th, the news of peace reached Philadelphia. On the 6th a proclamation was published in all the newspapers that war was ended and hostilities must cease. The joy with which the prisoned Indians received this news can hardly be conceived. It " exceeded all descriptions," says the record, and " was manifested in thanksgivings and praises to the Lord."

It was still unsafe, however, for them to return to their old homes, which were thickly surrounded by white settlers, who were no less hostile now at heart than they had been before the proclamation of peace. It was decided, therefore, that they should make a new settlement in the Indian country on the Susquehanna River. After a touching farewell to their old friends of the Bethlehem congregation, and a grateful leave-taking of the governor, who had protected and supported them for sixteen months, they set out on the 3d of April for their new home in the wilderness. For the third time their aged, sick, and little children were placed in overloaded wagons, for a long and difficult journey a far harder one than any they bad yet taken. The inhospitalities of the lonely wilderness were worse than the curses and reviling of riotous mobs. They were overtaken by severe snowstorms. They camped in icy swamps, shivering all night around smoldering fires of wet wood. To avoid still hostile whites they had to take great circuits through unbroken forests, where each foot of their path had to be cut tree by tree. The men waded streams and made rafts for the women and children. Sometimes, when the streams were deep, they had to go into camp, and wait till canoes could be built. They carried heavy loads of goods for which there was no room in the wagons. Going over high, steep hills, they often had to divide their loads into small parcels, thus doubling and trebling the road. Their provisions gave out. They ate the bitter wild potatoes. When the children cried with hunger, they peeled chestnut-trees, and gave them the sweet-juiced inner bark to suck. Often they had no water except that from shallow, muddy puddles. Once they were environed by blazing woods, whose fires burnt fiercely for hours around their encampment. Several of the party died, and were buried by the way.

"But all these trials were forgotten in their daily meetings, in which the presence of the Lord was most sensibly and comfortably felt. These were always held in the evening, around a large fire, in the open air."

They celebrated a "joyful commemoration" of Easter, and spent the Passion- week "in blessed contemplation" of the sufferings of Jesus, whose "presence supported them under all afflictions, insomuch that they never lost their cheerfulness and resignation" during the five long weeks of this terrible journey.

On the 9th of May they arrived at Machwihilusing, and "forgot all their pain and trouble for joy that they had reached the place of their future abode. With offers of praise and thanksgiving, they devoted themselves anew to Him who had given them rest for the soles of their feet."

"With renewed courage" they selected their home on the banks of the Susquehanna, and proceeded to build houses. They gave to the settlement the name of Friedenshutten a name full of significance, as coming from the hearts of these persecuted wanderers: Friedenshutten" Tents of Peace."

If all this persecution had fallen upon these Indians because they were Christians, the record, piteous as it is, would be only one out of thousands of records of the sufferings of Christian martyrs, and would stir our sympathies less than many another. But this was not the case. It was simply because they were Indians that the people demanded their lives, and would have taken them, again and again, except that all the power of the Government was enlisted for their protection. The fact of their being Christians did not enter in, one way or the other, any more than did the fact that they were peaceable. They were Indians, and the frontiersmen of Pennsylvania intended either to drive all Indians out of their State or kill them, just as the frontiersmen of Nebraska and of Colorado now intend to do if they can. We shall see whether the United States Government is as strong today as the Government of the Province of Pennsylvania was in 1763; or whether it will try first (and fail), as John Penn did, to push the helpless, hunted creatures off somewhere into a temporary makeshift of shelter, for a temporary deferring of the trouble of protecting them.

Sixteen years after the Conestoga massacre came that of Gnadenhutten, the blackest crime on the long list; a massacre whose equal for treachery and cruelty cannot be pointed out in the record of massacres of whites by Indians.

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

A Century of Dishonor, By Helen Hunt Jackson, New York, Harper & Brothers, Franklin Square, 1885

A Century of Dishonor


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